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"Birthing While Black" Congressional Hearing Amplifies Black Maternal Health Crisis

Actress Tatyana Ali testified in Congress on her "traumatizing" birthing experience, joining other witnesses who shared stories of childbirth trauma.
“Birthing While Black” Congressional Hearing Amplifies Black Maternal Health Crisis
Photo by Rodin Eckenroth/WireImage

Millions know actress Tatyana Ali for roles that have ranged from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air to Broadway.

Yet the Harvard graduate cherishes most her real-life roles as a wife and mother of two young sons. Last Thursday ahead of Mother’s Day, the activist testified before Congress about Black maternal health–and how the life or death issue impacted her family.

“When I asked my OB-GYN what positions I could be in during labor and delivery, he said that `I could hang from the lights if that made me happy’,” said Ali, who spoke via Zoom. “This being my first birth, the dismissal of my very earnest query into birthing techniques hurt. I felt silly. That should have been a warning.”

Such callousness, she shared, foreshadowed a harrowing birth experience that left her traumatized.

“One doctor climbed onto the side of the bed and pushed his forearm into my belly so hard that I could still feel the pain days later,” she recalled. “My baby had been crowned for hours. I could feel his hair. We said, “No”, when they offered forceps. They used a suction, a plunger type apparatus, and tried four times, the suction aggressively popped off of his head again and again. I knew instinctively that they would hurt my baby irreparably if this circus continued.”

After later requesting a C-section, Ali said one of the doctors wordlessly “pushed my baby back inside me in an extremely dangerous procedure called the Zavanelli maneuver. I began to convulse and shake. Then, my world went dark.”

Ali passed out, but her firstborn son, Edward, survived. He spent time in the neonatal intensive care unit, unable to urinate on his own. “The head pediatric urologist said it was because of his traumatic birth.”

Her emotional story was among those the House Committee on Oversight and Reform heard during its May 6 hearing, “Birthing While Black: America’s Black Maternal Health Crisis”

Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney (D-NY), Chairwoman of the committee and Rep. Robin Kelly (D-IL), a committee member presided. Over the course of four hours, the body examined maternal mortality and morbidity through the lens of Black women, men and their families.

“Let us recommit our efforts and support to ensure that every birthing person across this nation is empowered and feels safe when making that wonderful and exciting decision to become a mother,” said Kelly.

According to The Lancet science journal, 26.7 women out of 100,000 die directly as a direct result of maternal mortality. These figures have been rising exponentially in the U.S. for the past two decades. Women of color, regardless of income or education, are dying at a rate of 3 to 4 times higher.

“Black mamas are disproportionately and needlessly dying,” said Rep. Alma Adams (D-NC), who with Rep. Lauren Underwood (D-IL), co-founded the Black Maternal Health Caucus in 2019. “Research suggests the cumulative stress of racism and sexism undermines Black women’s health, making them more vulnerable to complications that endanger their lives and the lives of their infants,” she said. “In fact, the health care system often fails Black women, providing inadequate and culturally insensitive care that is plagued by bias, racism, and discrimination.”

The testimony of Charles Johnson, IV, went beyond the data to illustrate the tragic experience of one Black family.

“On April 12, 2016 my life partner, my best friend and amazing mom, Kira lost her life after a routine scheduled C-section,” he told committee members.

This was the couple’s second child. Kira delivered a son, Langston, via C-section. Afterwards, her husband recalled sitting next to her bed in the hospital’s recovery room.

“That is when I first noticed blood in her catheter. I notified staff immediately. A series of tests were ordered along with a CT scan to be performed “STAT.” I understood “STAT” to mean the CT scan would be performed immediately. Hours passed and Kira’s symptoms escalated throughout the rest
of the afternoon and into the evening.”

As the minutes and hours ticked by, Johnson said his wife kept repeating: “Charles, I’m so cold; Charles, I don’t feel right.” Approximately 10 hours later, after watching her condition deteriorate and his “begging and pleading” for help from staffers, she was wheeled into surgery.

“Kira looked at me and said, `Baby, I’m scared.’ I told her, without doubt, everything was going to be fine,” Johnson told the committee. Sadly, her words proved prescient.

At age 39, Kira Johnson died in the wee hours of April 17, 2016. Their baby was only 11 hours old.

“I do not have the words to describe the loss my family has suffered,” said Johnson, who later founded the nonprofit 4KIRA4MOMS to address maternal health and outcomes. The organization advocates for improved policies and regulations; educates the public about maternal mortality in communities; provides peer support to families; and promotes maternal mortality as a human rights issue.

“While I no longer have the love of my life–my best friend–more tragic is that my boys no longer have their mother,” he said.

Black maternal health has been amplified by many members of the Congressional Black Caucus. Reps. Ayanna Pressley (D-MA), Rep. Cori Bush (D-MI) and Washington, D.C. Delegate, Eleanor Holmes Norton were among those who participated in the hearing.

Multiple Black women with health expertise served as witnesses. They included: Veronica Gillispie, M.D., Medical Director, Louisiana Perinatal Quality Collaborative and Joia Adele Crear-Perry, M.D., Founder/President, National Birth Equity Collaborative. Tamika Auguste, M.D., Board of Directors Member with the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists joined. So did Jamila Taylor, Ph.D., Director of Health Care Reform at The Century Foundation.

The issue has allies beyond the Black community. For instance, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) spoke passionately during the hearing. And House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) is a founding member of the maternal caucus.

Congresswomen Adams, Underwood, Pressley and dozens of Capitol Hill lawmakers have crafted bills and are pushing a comprehensive legislative package called the “Black Maternal Health Momnibus Act.” This past February, the original nine bills from 2020 were updated to 12 and reintroduced with Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ). It includes a bill named for the late Kira Johnson.

Pressley and Booker have also introduced the MOMMIES (Maximizing Outcomes for Moms through Medicaid Improvement and Enhancement of Service) Act to expand coverage for pregnant people through Medicaid, which covers nearly half of all births in the United States.

“A safe and healthy pregnancy should be a fundamental human right, but far too many people in America —particularly Black women—still find themselves without the high-quality, comprehensive care they need for themselves and their babies,” said Pressley. “Our bill would help change that by promoting community-based, holistic approaches to maternity and post-partum care so that every pregnant person is treated with the dignity and respect they deserve during and after childbirth. Our fight for maternal justice continues.”

If passed by Congress, lawmakers told ESSENCE the Momnibus legislation will comprehensively address every dimension of the maternal health crisis in America to save lives and end racial and ethnic disparities in maternal health outcomes.

The measure makes investments in social determinants of health; improves the national response to pandemics with respect to maternity care; the growth and diversification of the perinatal workforce; improvements in data collection and quality measures; and promotes digital tools i.e. telehealth, and innovative payment models.

“We have an urgent responsibility to take bold action to save lives, end disparities, and advance true equity and justice for all our moms,” said Underwood in a statement.

Now that President Joe Biden has announced the new American Families Plan– which invests in education, health care, and child care–Adams hopes the maternal health package can be part of it.

The Momnibus measure also addresses environmental justice, as studies show climate change can take a toll on pregnant women and their infants, and critical funding for community-based organizations and perinatal workers, notably, doulas, midwives, and lactation consultants.

Advocates say these trained professionals are doing vital work that can help save Black mamas and babies – especially in communities of color.

When Ali was ready to deliver her second son, Alejandro, a midwife accompanied her to the hospital using her training and prayer to comfort any anxieties. Ali’s experience was vastly improved, but she knows not everyone will be so fortunate.

“Many are now scared to start families because they know that we are dying in hospitals. We don’t have to lose anyone else. We need to be heard and we need to be believed.”